Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Had I not been white, there would've been no citation, there would've been no traffic stop, there would've been no second glance. Save the unruly tendrils of wavy brown hair that escaped from the knot on the top of my head, we would've been clear. Instead, those loose strands danced in the whipping wind of the cracked windows. Through the slightly tinted windows, my silhouette was not a familiar one on those streets.

We weren't really doing anything different than anyone else on the street that day. Our truck was burdened with bags of rice and beans. But so was everyone else's. A man sat in the bed to warn off would-be thieves, but that duty fell upon nearly everyone carrying goods. And at the end of the day, we were just taking a few weeks worth of food to an orphanage full of malnourished children that no one cared about.

But the fact remained, I was different. And I stood out. The road, if I may be so bold to call it that, was really a stretch of empty dust, lined with vendors' stalls and makeshift shacks on either side. The rains of the wet season had ripped down the opening leaving rifts and craters upon its face. Even though it was a main thoroughfare, it was more of a maze. You hoped to pick a set of tire tracks to follow that would lead to an outlet. Our path entered an intersection. Three policemen stood in the center, looking important in their crisp, clean uniforms. They cradled their enormous guns with a tender embrace though their faces reflected no trace of kindness or affection. As their eyes landed on our approaching vehicle, I felt my body tense. Closing my eyes in a desperate prayer, I hoped that I was wrong, that they hadn't seen me. I tried to convince myself that I was over reacting. But I wasn't. I heard the police yelling at us. The driver pressed on, unyielding to their requests as we had done nothing wrong. Finally we came to a stop as all three men craned their heads inside the window to get a better view of the passengers. They asked for papers, but barely looked at them. They argued with my friend in a tangled mess of French and Lingala. The whole time, their eyes flickered toward mine as I attempted to hold their gaze, to call their bluff. I failed and they seemed to revel in the fortune of snaring a white woman on these streets.

My dad sat next to me. We looked at each other and knew this whole order was because of us. Eventually, the chief inserted himself into the passenger seat and directed our driver down a side street, and then a small alley. He ordered the driver and my friend, Papa P, into what appeared to be a police station. In her broken English, Papa P's wife told me they had been arrested. We waited in the truck for what felt like hours.

I'm not going to lie, I was scared. Quite possibly more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I had started the morning just trying to do something good, trying to help some hungry kids, and wanting to experience the neighborhood where my little boy had spent the first 15 months of his life. I had been before, and it had been dangerous. But I wanted to see it again. I had to imprint every detail, every scent, every sound that I could to be able to recount it to my little boy again someday. Sitting in the truck, all those memories and images flashed before me.

I always knew I was the lucky one, the privileged one. But now it was undeniably obvious that I didn't belong on these streets. In those moments, I didn't just know it. I felt it. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, churning and spinning. I felt it the palms of my hands, sweating profusely. Muscles up and down my back contracted, vessels constricted. All the while, I hadn't done anything wrong.

After what was likely more like 20 minutes, Papa P emerged from the police station and climbed back in the truck. As he recounted the story, the beads of sweat on his brow betrayed his carefree laughter. He told us how the policeman had fined him $200 for having too many things in his car. He would have none of it and finally talked him down to $50. We backed out of the alley, swung around a corner and continued our trek along a less trafficked road toward the orphanage.

I don't tell this story to draw parallels between corrupt police or crime in our country. I simply share this experience to help you imagine what its like to live without privilege, even for a brief time. I do believe there are people in this country who do not share the privileges you enjoy. Ultimately, I had a passport to whisk me back to the other side of the globe. But in that moment? In that moment it all meant nothing. In that moment I was only human- stripped of everything that kept me safe and secure.

Its time to recognize that we are not all covered by the same privilege. Its time to extend the cloak of human equality and inherent value to all mankind. It starts by listening to the voices and stories different from our own. It grows as we allow empathy to take root within us. And until the day when all things are made new, we groan and pray for justice.


Friday, December 5, 2014

In 2005 I took a job teaching middle school in Washington, DC. I was 24 years young and naive. I waltzed in thinking I would make a difference for my students, having no idea of how I would be the one destroyed and remade. I muscled the door open to a classroom very, very few white students in this country will ever face. The windows were busted out, pigeons flapped wildly, splattering excrement over the floors, and rats scattered back to their nests. Curse words were sprawled across the walls and the pipes from a broken sink jutted out menacingly. Fast food wrappers from the previous school year were jammed into the file cabinets. Beyond that, a measly pile of outdated textbooks were stacked in a corner. 
99% of my students that year were black. I was one of three white staff members in the entire building. I’m pretty sure every parent thought I was ridiculous- they would know, they watched dozens of young white teachers run for the hills after a day at this school. The students challenged my perceived authority constantly, and thought I was completely crazy for trying to make them learn the scientific method let alone words like hypothesis and photosynthesis. And they weren’t afraid to tell me so. I went in early to plan lessons and stayed late reworking my strategies to find anything that might connect with them. They were constantly poised for a fight, ready to sling back insult for criticism. They were only children, but they had been conditioned from a early age to survive. They came from rough neighborhoods where drugs and violence were dictators. Poverty was an unrelenting force. I had no context to even imagine what their lives were like. 
A month into the year, I broke. I remember having a conversation with my instructional coach. I told her I felt defeated, more often like a zookeeper than a teacher. My students only wanted to play, they didn’t care about learning. She put me in my place faster than I could blink and reprimanded me for even making a reference to my students as if they were animals. She reminded me that the historical influence of such comments was not so far off as I might have believed, even though I didn’t mean any offense. This just revealed more failure in my attempt at understanding my students. By the end of the day I couldn’t hold back the tears. Halfway through 8th period, I threw my photos, books, and dry erase markers into a box and left my classroom. As I slammed the door behind me, I heard the thing I’d been waiting for since September… Silence. 
After a tear fest with my husband that night, I realized I had to go back to work. Without my job, we couldn’t pay rent or buy groceries. We had no choice. I had to go back to that place. I went in early and sunk down into my chair, bewildered and overwhelmed. That’s when I saw the notes on my desk. A note from Jade, with a school photo. A note that said everyone in the world had given up on her, asking me to stay. Notes from Keith and Dedan. Notes from Marcus and Robert of Grenada. A note from Brittany and Darryl. I closed my eyes and saw their faces. Their smiles. The twinkle in their eyes. 
The thing I realized that morning was that even though I could walk away, they couldn’t. They had nowhere else to go. I knew that to make it work until June, something would have to be different. And so I began to work on building relationships with the kids. Relationships that were not built on grades or textbooks. Not based on report cards or negative phone calls home. I just started to talk to them. Sometimes it meant forgoing a lesson to pursue a rabbit trail. Sometimes in meant inviting kids to eat their lunches in my room where there was a space heater to huddle around. Sometimes it meant coming in to Saturday school with a smile on my face rather than the groaning clawing at my insides. It meant learning how to make a graph based on sports stats and competetive sprints outside rather than scientific minutiae. It meant taking the most bad ass bully of a girl to Disney on Ice and watching her eyes light up at the thought of a world where everything ends happily every after. It meant eating at the waffle house at midnight after I took the kids to see “Stomp” in Baltimore with one of the parents. It meant ordering carry out for class parties and eating fried chicken with hot sauce. It meant praising my students at conferences and focusing on their successes. It meant decorating the hallway and going totally crazy when everyone passed an exam. It meant giving do-overs and second chances. 
Did I hold my students to standards of learning and growing? Absolutely. Was I successful with all my students? No. And their faces still haunt me. But I can guarantee that the progress we made together was dependent on two things. Mutual respect and relationship. Without these, we were at each other’s throats, accusing and fighting. 
I could go on and on with stories that my white friends would think are crazy. These stories reveal our white privilege. Problems that I’ve never comprehended because my white genes shielded me from them. Circumstances I never faced because my family’s middle class income landed me in a comfortable suburb, despite the fact that my parents were nothing more than mediocre high school grads. (They are amazing, loving people, but for the sake of this post, its worth noting that their education did not land them in the social class we enjoyed) My friends, white privilege is a very real thing. But it is elusive and slippery. Those who possess it are often blind to it. Or at least down play its significance. 
I can’t help but think that the only way we are going to see a society of equality and peace is when we are willing to set aside our white privilege to see the world through black eyes. To acknowledge that something in our justice system is terribly awry. People who work together to better their neighborhood don’t shoot each other. People who know one another’s names don’t choke one another. To all my white friends, I’m asking you to just stop and consider what it means to enjoy white privilege. The fact that one of my sons gets band aids from the doctor that blend into his pale skin while the other walks out looking spotted. The fact that my skin tone is labeled “Normal” by Johnson & Johnson while my son’s is labeled “Dark.” The fact that more often than not, the people around you look very similarly to you. Stop accusing and justifying. Our society needs reconciliation and it begins with us listening and showing empathy. 
On the last day of school I received a compliment, though I'm not sure that's what it was meant to be. One of my students said, "You know, Miz D, you's a'ight fer a white lady." As I sat in that classroom the tears flooded my eyes once again. To this day, it is the best compliment I've ever received. I changed, not on my own accord, but because relationships formed that forced me to look outside of myself. Relationships that made me uncomfortable. Relationships that only came when I admitted how little I really understood.
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